Lebrecht’s book is an extended meditation on the question of what it is about Jews that has enabled them to change the world in so many different ways. He guides us through his chosen period (1847–1947) in a breathless present continuous, with an enthusiasm that holds the reader’s attention. Besides major, familiar figures, such as Einstein, Freud, Marx, Proust and Schoenberg, his kaleidoscope of characters includes Rosalind Franklin, whose important work on the double helix has still not been fully recognized; Leo Szilard, who split the atom; and Albert Ballin, to whom Lebrecht attributes the invention of the hamburger.
I don’t know if Lebrecht actually buys into so simple a description of scientific progress, or whether it is just a good, combative kick-off to a book, but either way the main thrust of the argument is inescapable. For the best part of the past 200 years a small and threatened minority has exerted a creative influence out of all proportion to their numbers, and whether they flaunt it like a Disraeli or a Bernstein, or a convert like Mendelssohn, whether they hate it like Marx, are religious or atheist, Orthodox or Reform, assimilist or Zionist, the one thing they share is their ‘Jewishness’. While it seems a difficult thing to define without slipping into tautology — a ‘Jewish aphorism’ or a ‘Jewish joke’ takes one as close as one is probably going to get — the one quality, for Lebrecht, that distinguishes the ‘Jewish mindset’ is the rabbinical, counter-intuitive ability to think ‘outside the box’. He is quick to refute any suggestion of Jewish ‘exceptionalism’, but whether in the end it is a matter of culture, hereditary experience or the eternal, driven angst of a people who could only fear the worst, the western world has every reason to be grateful to this astonishing explosion of talent.
Best known as a music critic, Lebrecht is an exuberant storyteller who ably brings these personalities to life... Lebrecht’s warts-and-all portraits of these extraordinary people fails to land the provenance of genius, or its putative connection to Jewishness, but he makes a compelling case for the phenomenal energy and independence of thought that underpinned their achievements and far-reaching influence. Impressively wide-ranging in scope and unflaggingly fascinating in detail, his account is perhaps most remarkable of all for its striking absence of authorial anxiety.
That’s the charm of this book, narrated not by a straight-faced professional historian, but by a sprightly raconteur, with anecdotes and jokes, digressions and embellishments. Lebrecht piles them high in a ziggurat of enthusiasm for those “who changed the way we see the world”.
It seems old-fashioned to tell the history of ideas through the lives of great men (and some women, such as the actress Sarah Bernhardt, “inventor of celebrity”). But it’s the right approach if you believe that biography reveals how ideas germinate. For Lebrecht, it’s the specifically Jewish biography of thinkers that counts.
The subtitle of Norman Lebrecht’s book, ‘How Jews Changed the World’, underlines the importance of this story. But you will not come away from reading it with any deep understanding of the connection between genius and anxiety, or of the ways in which it gave this minority the energy to do so. That’s a shame, because what Jews accomplished from the 19th century up to the catastrophe of the Holocaust was nothing less than a second renaissance in Western culture. Like Lebrecht’s journalism, the book is gossipy, told at a rapid pace and not without its share of name-dropping. It may be a work of history but the author thinks it is important to tell us how he took a tour of Felix Mendelssohn’s house with star conductor Kurt Masur. The question is, is this the best way to tell the story?.. Although Lebrecht tries to impose a chronological structure on his story, he has a hard time sticking to it. There isn’t a lot of explanation of who people are. You either know their names and a bit of their biographies already or you don’t. The result is one of those dip-in, dip-out kind of books... This is a book primarily for a Jewish audience, most of whom will be enduring renewed fears of anti-Semitism and wanting to refresh their memories about the many, many members of the community who shaped the world we inhabit. It will also interest people who like a good gossip about famous artists. Readers looking for a clue as to why this tiny community made such an outsized contribution to modern culture and science will have to look elsewhere.